Environment Bill loophole leaves nature targets in 18-year lag

A major loophole in the Environment Bill will give the government nearly two decades to meet future legally-binding targets.


This week, the government launched its ‘ground-breaking’ Environment Bill, aiming to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore nature once the UK leaves the EU and its environmental laws behind.

The Bill requires the government to set at least one legally binding target for each of these areas, to ensure the UK meets these ambitions. However, further analysis of the Bill by Greenpeace has exposed a major loophole that will give the government 18 years before it is legally required to meet any of the targets set.

The deadline for setting legally-binding targets detailed in the Bill is 31 October 2022. The four environmental priority areas, with the exception of air quality, must then set a date for meeting these targets “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set”. This means that no legal action could be taken against the government on any potential environmental failings on water, plastic, waste or nature restoration until 2037, at the earliest.

The Bill does give the government power to set interim targets for the four environmental areas. However, as with the long-term targets, they still would not be set until 2022 and the interim targets wouldn’t be legally binding.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said:

“What good are legally-binding targets if they can’t be enforced for almost two decades? Boris Johnson may have long since retired and the youth climate strikers at least doubled in age by the time the government is required to meet its environmental obligations in 2037.

“The government talks about the “urgent action” needed to tackle the mammoth challenges that our environment faces. If it truly believes this, then that action needs to happen straight away, not the 18 year window it has given itself.”

The government has a track record of missing environmental targets, with the number of serious pollution incidents recorded in 2018/19 rising to its highest level since 2014/15, despite government targets aiming to reduce them.

On nature restoration – one of the areas the Environment Bill will set targets for – a leaked document from last year demonstrated that the government had actually abandoned agreed targets to conserve 50% of England’s sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), by area, by 2020.

The recent State of Nature report highlighted the recent rapid decline in nature, stating that a quarter of UK mammals and nearly half of the birds are at risk of extinction.

There has also been widespread criticism of the fact that the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is supposed to hold regulatory power, will not be able to fine the government for any compliance failures. This resulted in one leading Lord and academic describing the OEP as “toothless”. And further question marks have been raised over its independence from government.

Greenpeace are demanding tough targets to be set much sooner than 2022, in line with the climate and nature emergency that we are facing. And all targets, long-term or interim, must be given legal force.

What's next?